Varanasi, also known as Banaras, Benares, or Kashi, is located on the banks of the river Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. It is one of the oldest and continuously inhabited cities in the world, with evidence of settlements dating back to 1800 BCE. This city holds high regard for Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs.
To the Hindus, Kashi is one of the holiest places on Earth. It is believed that the one who dies in this sacred city escapes the cycle of rebirths and attains salvation. Holding on to this desire, millions of Hindus visit Kashi each year, with some wishing to die there. The pilgrimage to Kashi for the Hindus is equivalent to that of the Hajj for the Muslims.
Apart from Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists, too consider Varanasi as one of the holy places of pilgrimage. Notably, in Sarnath (a city very close to Varanasi), Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment.
Varanasi, during ancient times, was home to several saints and artists who brought a renaissance in the fields of art, philosophy, and spirituality. Banaras Hindu University, established in 1916, was considered Asia’s largest residential university at that time. The educational institution, since then, has continued to produce intellectuals in different areas.
Temples, ghats, and other places of attraction
The original name of this city comes from the Sanskrit word “Kas,” which means light. Therefore, Kashi’s name, in a literal sense, means “The city of lights.” Most people who visit Varanasi claim that the city is like the fountain of lights, with funeral pyres and oil lamps lighting up the city’s ghats every evening. The Ganga Aarti that takes place at Dasashwamedh Ghat every sunset, generally from 7-9 PM, is a spectacular sight to behold. This highly choreographed ritual that hundreds of Hindu priests perform while circling brass lamps is a spiritual experience that many crave for. This custom is followed each evening to appease the river Ganga and other gods from the Hindu pantheon. The namesakes of this city, the Varuna and Assi rivers, are other famous attractions. Being tributaries of Ganga, they hold the same spiritual significance that the Ganges holds for the Hindus.
In contrast with the Ganga Aarti, while strolling through the labyrinth-like streets of Varanasi, a glance over the Manikarnika Ghat, where one can see hundreds of funeral pyres burning each day, brings a person face-to-face with the harsh reality of death. Manikarnika Ghat has been the holiest cremation site for many devout Hindus for centuries. Close to this Ghat is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, dedicated to the Hindu God of Destruction, Lord Shiva. Vishwanath temple is believed to be very powerful spiritually, as seekers praying here often get what they desire. This temple was destroyed by foreign invaders (rulers of Delhi sultanate and Moghuls) several times during the ancient period. However, it was rebuilt by the believers each time it was destroyed. One can see the marks of the temple’s destruction and recreation in the architecture of its current structure.
Apart from Vishwanath Temple, an equally famous shrine of Deity Annapurna, a consort of Lord Shiva, is situated close to Manikarnika Ghat. Deity Annapurna, according to Hindu mythology, is the provider of food to all living beings. Thousands of devotees are provided free meals in this temple throughout the day. Except for these renowned ones, there are tens of thousands of other small Hindu temples with varying architectural styles in Varanasi.
Besides Hindu temples, Buddhist and Jain monuments too flank the city of Varanasi. Shree Parshvanath Jain temple and Shreyasnath Jain temple are important places of worship for the Jains in the region.
Likewise, the breathtakingly beautiful Tibetian temple (constructed in Tibetian style and followed by Vajrayana Buddhists), and Chaukhandi Stupa, where Buddha met his disciples for the first time, is believed to house the relics of Lord Buddha, are among the most significant places for practicing spirituality for Buddhists. Apart from Chaukhandi Stupa, the Dhamek stupa, too, is believed to house the relics of Buddha in Varanasi. The walls of both these Stupas are carved beautifully with patterns and teachings of Lord Buddha.
Additionally, the Ashoka Pillar, which is the inspiration behind the national emblem of India, is also situated in Sarnath, nearby Varanasi. It was erected by Emperor Ashoka in the 2nd century BC, commemorating his victories and the spread of Buddhism to the known world. The four lions that sit on the top of this pillar symbolizes India’s judiciary, while the Wheel of Dharma, ox, and the horse signify the triumph of Truth and Justice.
In addition to being a profound place for the spiritual seekers, the city of Kashi is also considered as one of the favorite destinations for professional photographers, who flock to the city to capture alongside its spiritual spirit, the majestic glory of the river Ganges, especially during the boat rides in the early morning and the evenings, which are believed to be the best time for a ride. The Ramnagar Fort and the Brijrama Palace greet the person on the boat from the banks, making the ride even more worthwhile.
Food and Souvenirs of Banaras
The streets of Benares fill up with the fragrances of mouth-watering sweetmeats as the evening drops. Dahi Wada, a sweet-sour snack made out of lentils and curd, is served in every corner. Besides Dahi Wada, there’s another popular dish of Kashi, which is called Nimish. Nimish, usually served in clay cups, is a dairy delicacy that is generally eaten in winters. It is made by adding saffron, nuts, cardamom, and other spices to milk froth. Lassi (a local name for sweet yogurt), Baati Chokha, and Kachori (local savory item) are some of the must-haves. Apart from savories, desserts made from gourds and pumpkins are significantly popular and often help revitalize tired tourists and devotees.
In most of India, people chew betel leaf, usually stuffed with spices and rolled into a triangular shape after a meal. This triangular betel leaf is popularly known as Pan/Paan. While Paan in most cities is a common item, Benarasi Paan is regarded as an untitled king because of the variety in terms of the flavors. In Kashi, exotic spices are added to Paan to make it mouth-watering. Many Paan sellers in Varanasi even guard their home-grown recipes.
After enjoying the morsels of Varanasi’s famous street treats, toward the end of the trip, a person can enjoy shopping for the famous Banarasi Sarees, which every Indian bride dreams of having in her wardrobe.
Banarasi silk sarees are renowned for the opulent patterns embroidered on them with the help of gold or silver threads. These patterns often form the border of these sarees. Because of these decorative borders, these sarees feel a bit heavy for first-time wearers.
Besides sarees, a person can also shop for crystals, glass beads, wooden handicrafts, bangles, idols of gods and goddesses, and carpets on the streets of Varanasi.
With its divine and legendary presence held holy in the hearts of many Indians, Varanasi is, without any doubt, a city that assures you with both spiritual and sensory overload.
I am Akanksha, a budding blogger and a culture enthusiast. I’m in 12th pursuing science. Where my love for literature is undivided, my eagerness to continue studying culture and history brought me here.